Adults in treatment for severe mental disorders report greater levels of childhood stress than adults without psychiatric disorders, researchers from Germany found in a study they conducted.
A burgeoning number of studies suggest that adverse or traumatic experiences during childhood influence adult psychopathology, Dr. Brigitte Rockstroh, of the University of Konstanz, and colleagues note in the journal BMC Psychiatry.
They sought to further clarify this influence by comparing lifetime stress levels among 96 adults with major depression, schizophrenia, drug addiction, or personality disorder and 31 non-psychiatric adult subjects.
The investigators used two stress screening scales to measure adverse experiences when study participants were younger than six years (early childhood), before the onset of puberty, and during adulthood.
Rockstroh's group found indications that childhood is a critical developmental period, in that all study participants showed negative effects related to high stress levels during childhood and before puberty, but not adulthood.
Psychiatric patients, however, appear to be more negatively affected by early life stress, as they scored about 4 and 6 points higher in measures of early childhood and pre-pubertal stress, respectively, relative to non-psychiatric subjects. Yet, measures of adulthood stress did not differ between groups.
Moreover, the researchers report a "dose-effect" - a relationship between the amount or severity of early life stress and adult psychiatric problems. This relationship was not restricted to traumatic experiences and post-traumatic stress disorder, but appeared to vary between types of psychiatric disorders.
For example, they found childhood stress levels most pronounced among patients with personality disorders.
The investigators say additional research is needed to clarify of the association between early life stress and psychiatric disorders in larger groups of patients.
Meanwhile, "we can only speculate that early life stress interacts with disorder-specific factors," Rockstroh and colleagues surmise. - BMC Psychiatry, July 2008